brillient

A light in the darkness of the soul.

Meeting the world’s needs

The world is complicated and confusing. What can we do to make it easier to understand?

Attempting to understand the world, in toto, might seem futile. The world is very big. A single person can have, at best, a rough knowledge of all the world’s parts and how they interconnect.

What about a network of people? What if that network were supported by powerful computers and clever software? How much can that network know about the world?

Knowledge of the world is already distributed amongst its billions of human residents. But that knowledge is fragmentary. Various disciplines and organizations serve as aggregators and connectors for different kinds of knowledge. But no single system ties them all together. What if there could be?

Why is knowledge of the world worth having? Why is it valuable? Because it is useful. Knowledge of a system increases the power of one part of that system to change another part, to its benefit.

If an entity, such as a person, holds knowledge about a system, and that knowledge is useful, it follows that the entity must be a part of that system.

This conclusion arises from two facts. First, that to apply knowledge requires a medium through which to make changes to a system. That medium is a material or energy flow. Second, that the results of such changes alter the physical behaviour and flows of the system, redirecting those flows towards the knowledgeable. To have this kind of connection implies being an integral part of the system. To not be a part of the system would require relinquishing those connections.

A contrasting example is the relationship of the sun to the planets. Nothing the Earth can do, at present, can affect the Sun’s behavior. We have knowledge of the sun, but it is not applicable, or directly useful. The Earth does partake in, and live on Earth benefits from, energy and matter flows coming from the sun, but it cannot alter those flows. In that sense, the sun and the Earth are distinct systems, with the Earth being subordinate to the sun.

Humanity is part of the Earth. We are not separate from it. Believing we are separate is a pervasive myth. The myth supports our vanity and self-importance, but it distorts our understanding of the Earth. It allows us to behave in ways that we assume are perfectly safe, but are not.  Believing that we are separate from the Earth prevents us from recognizing the risks, and from accepting responsibility for the harm we do to ourselves.

Accepting that we are part of the Earth is difficult. It requires us to have a more sophisticated understanding of our relationship to the planet. It increases our responsibility. People do not like responsibility. We have finite cognitive resources. The more responsibility we have, the more we have to divide up those resources.

Each person can only do so much. One person can account for only so many variables when making decisions. The solution is to spread out the responsibility for different variables. As a society, we can distribute the cognitive load. It does, however, require us to trust that the responsibilities of different people, attending to different systems and variables, are of comparable value and importance.

This leads to a challenge, and opportunity: how do we enhance our collective knowledge to better integrate the fragmentary knowledge of billions of people?

Wikipedia provides an example. An encyclopedia is an aggregate of the knowledge of many people. It is usually assembled by editors, who may or may not be subject matter experts themselves. Wikipedia uses the Internet, and powerful server computers, to aggregate more knowledge into one consistent form than has ever existed before. But while that knowledge is all collected in one place, with a similar format, it is not well integrated.

The contents of Wikipedia are in the form of articles. An article is a textual representation of knowledge, sometimes augmented with other media–photographs, diagrams, charts—or mathematical expressions. Hyperlinks between articles make it easy to traverse the encyclopedia. But articles are rarely written in reference to one another. Sometimes a high-level overview article will reference multiple low-level articles about specifics. Sometimes a summary section from one page will be used inside an overview, allowing some degree of consistency. But generally, articles are self-contained chunks of knowledge.

Wikipedia has many editorial guidelines, covering most aspects of article development. But these are followed inconsistently. Different articles have different degrees of attention, from readers and editors. This is an inevitable consequence of a volunteer project, where people do what they want, taking care of what they think is important. There is no unified or over-arching system, no standardized rational method, for identifying gaps in Wikipedia’s knowledge, or, for that matter, its flaws. It all comes down to how the editors pay attention, which is itself a consequence of the vagaries of social interest and cultural prejudice.

If Wikipedia, or some other collaborative project, did have a rational method for prioritizing knowledge, what would it look like? Is such a thing even possible? Or is it some kind of technocratic idealization? Are there objective ways of measuring what is important? How do people measure what is important to themselves?

What if we asked everyone what was important to them? What if we tracked how their priorities changed over time? Can we predict what we might see, if we could ask every single person on Earth what mattered to them? How well do we understand human nature?

Human psychology is complicated. Maybe just as complicated as the entirety of the non-living Earth. It’s hard to say. Human psychology is an phenomenon of the human nervous system. Billions of brain cells and trillions of connections between them make for a very complex system. Multiplied by billions of people and trillions of social connections, that makes a system of systems.

However, we can put psychology aside for the moment. Or, more specifically, we can anchor human pschology to some facts about human nature that, while also complex, are more constrained and therefor predictable.

The human body is a thermodynamic system, as are all living organisms. It requires a physical environment suited to healthy operation. Our body has material needs that are consistent and predictable. We need atmosphere to breathe. We need clean water, and safe, nutritious food. We need a sanitary place to excrete waste. We need facilities for bathing, and removal of waste water. We need heat for cooking. We need a bed to sleep on. We need shelter to protect us from wildlife, dampness, and extreme temperatures.

It’s not that difficult to summarize our emotional and essential social needs, too, notwithstanding our psychological complexity. We need social stability: family and community, and the cultural predictability that they bring. We need medical care, and the psychological comfort of knowing it is available. We need good leaders, and common principles of social organization, to ensure we can meet everyone’s needs.

Our needs build on top of another. And underlying them all, we need a healthy planet to provide us with clean air and water, ecosystems and species for food, materials for building, and spaces for living and working in.

Various features of the environment actually need to exist in equilibrium. Air needs to be the right mix of gases, not too cold or too hot, too damp or too dry. Water needs to be clean before use, and cleaned after use, so it can be used again. These needs rely on cyclical processes, that in turn rely on numerous environmental systems, which are themselves self-regulating, at least as long as they are not exposed to excessive harm from bad weather, changing climate, or destructive human activities.

These are all objective facts about human beings, their needs, and the needs of the systems they rely on. But we cannot take it for granted that these needs are met.

In the ancient past, humans were few in number, and the world was large. Still, few of our needs were guaranteed. We competed with other animals for territory and food.

Now, we are the unchallenged masters of the Earth. But still, we cannot take for granted that our needs will be met. Quite the contrary. At any point in time, at different places around the world, people’s needs are being met to varying degrees. Some people are doing without, and they are suffering.

But if I were to ask you, where in the world is the most acute shortage of clean air, clean water, or safe food? Or even in your own city or town, who needs help, and who is in danger? Putting aside whether or not you care about the welfare of others, what about your welfare? Does your government understand your needs? Are there other people suffering the same difficulties as you? If there were, wouldn’t you want to know about it? Wouldn’t you want to work together to address your needs, collectively? Or do you think it is better to try to solve your problems on your own?

It may be a cliché, but every problem is also an opportunity. I don’t just mean an opportunity to sell a product or service. I mean, an opportunity to be generous, to contribute to people’s health and happiness, and to form new social connections. Needing help does not mean that a person is useless. It means that they have obstacles that prevent them from participating.

The goal of a successful society should be to enable every person to participate. Every person wants to participate. Every person wants to contribute. It is a fundamental quality of human nature. Anything that prevents that is a problem that needs to be addressed. Whether people have material needs, or emotional needs, or social needs, those needs are getting in the way of their ability to share what they have.

People are not naturally lazy, or cruel, or hateful, or evil. They are selfish to a degree, but that is necessary to achieve a sufficient level of self-sufficiency. People have inherent needs, and an inherent drive to meet those needs. Selfishness increases only in response to a hostile and unsafe environment, where those needs are put at risk. Before a person can be a part of society, they must take care of their essential needs. They must be freed from excessive anxiety that their needs will not be met in the future. People are easily frightened. Fear is a natural response to threat, and the result of fear is self-interested behaviour. If people have their needs met, and have reason to believe that their needs will be met in future, their fear decreases, and their selfishness decreases, too.

So, let’s build a system for keeping track of everyone’s needs. Then, let’s ensure their needs are met. The world will become a better place. If more people can contribute to solving complicated problems, we can solve them faster. But they can only participate if they aren’t weighed down by the effort and stress of meeting their essential needs. So let’s help them, so that they can help us.

Pain Relief

If you see other people as competitors, then you are treating the world as a competition. If you see them as collaborators, you need a different conceptual framework.

No single framework can capture the complexity of the world. The mind has limits. But we can contrast different frameworks for interpreting the world, and prefer one that produces the best outcomes.

If the world is like a tournament, the overriding goal is to be on top of the standings. There is one variable: your rank. Every strategy is evaluated based on its success in increasing it. More correctly, the return on investment of each strategy—the improvement in rank achieved from the time and effort spent—determines the best one to follow.

People, however, are usually more complicated than that. While improving one’s own situation is always desirable, we usually want to improve that of others as well.

Few, if any, people have the imaginative capacity to account for the welfare of the entire human race (let alone all living things). So, generally, we use a small group of people as proxy for the larger collective. This proxy group changes throughout our lives. Most of its members are close personal connections. But it can also include people we know professionally, or through popular media.

In spite of the limits of our capacity for empathy, most people can open themselves up to the humanity of complete strangers, given the right context. Thanks to this, we can live in giant megalopolises without being constantly at one another’s throats. It doesn’t preclude all doubts about the intentions of others, but occasional anxiety is better than constant animosity.

So how do we see ourselves in a social context, if not as competitors (let alone enemies)? It seems to me there are two ways: as collaborators, and as helpers.

When we collaborate, we enter a collective with a shared goal. But it does not necessarily determine what that goal is. In a threatening situation, it could simply be survival. This is certainly true in combat, or during a natural disaster, or other crisis. However, I’m not talking about crisis scenarios. In everyday life, when we are not struggling to avoid death, what are we struggling for? Who are we struggling for?

I don’t want to diminish the fact that other people are, all around the world, and in every city and town, struggling to survive. Quite the opposite. What is so interesting, even disturbing, is that in any given place, there are, simultaneously, some people struggle not to drown, while others glide gracefully through smooth waters.

Why don’t the latter people see and empathize with the former? Are they cruel and uncaring? Or are they simply oblivious? Or have they simply not made a connection, and so have no person in their close circle who can be a proxy for all the people in the world experience similar difficulties?

When the Internet was being invented, the optimists believed that it would break barriers between people. That isn’t how it turned out. Instead, it reflects our natural tendency to clump up into social islands. Like most technology, the Internet is an amplifier. It did not change the underlying ways in which we socialize. Only the surface details have changed.

Of course there are exceptions. There have always been people who were more open-minded, more courageous, more curious, more generous. Such people have used the Internet to find more connections, more friends, more collaborators. Since the Internet is also the best tool ever invented for learning things, it has enabled people to grow their experience of the world in a way that was much more difficult in the past.

But it isn’t doing enough.

That is to say, the applications which have been built to leverage the Internet have not done enough to promote building bridges between social islands. There is more to be done. Eventually, the world should be one continuous social network. Everyone should be connected, if only indirectly, to every other person, in every town, every country, and on every continent.

You might be asking, “Why?” Or perhaps, “How?”

It goes back to the idea of a framework for understanding the world. The truth is that every person is already connected, indirectly, to every other person. And to every other living thing on Earth. We are connected through ecosystems, weather systems, economic systems, production systems, distribution systems, waste systems, and currents in the air and oceans. But for most people, most of the time, most of these connections are invisible. For some people, they don’t exist at all. Some people use a framework of understanding that explicitly precludes holistic relationships in the biosphere. They see a few friends, with similar faces, similar skin, similar speech, and similar dress. Otherwise, they see outsiders and enemies: threats to their safety and security, who want to take their stuff.

Perhaps, if that is how you see the world, then that is how you make the world. But there are others ways to see the world.

If everyone in the world is, if not your enemy, and not your collaborator, but definitely connected, that how should you see them?

As helpers. Just as you should yourself as their helper.

And what do helpers do for one another? They help alleviate their suffering. They protect them from misery. They take away their pain.

That’s nice, isn’t it? Does it seem naive, though? Some might think so.

But what other interpretation is there? Sure, one person might start a business with the intention of earning a profit, and satisfying his greed. But does he not also seek recognition? Does he not seek approval? And how does he accomplish that? Not be being a criminal. Yes, he could make money by being a criminal. He could achieve notoriety. He could make people fear him, even respect him, for his power. But he could not gain honour or respect.

Honour comes from doing good for others. And all successful people, and successful organizations—whether public or private, for profit or not—aim to do good for others. That is, to help them.

This is orthogonal to the way society divides itself up. Even in a highly fragment society, you can attain honour in your fragment by doing good for the others in that same fragment. But you still have to do good. (Admittedly, it is possible to only appear to do good, while doing harm, but this is rare, because it is actually more work than doing good, while being more risky.)

If we can accept this idea: that the best framework for understanding the world is for each and every person to see themselves as helpers—as opposed to singular survivors or contestants, competing with everyone else—then what is the next step? It is to ask, “How can I help?” Secondarily, it might also be to ask, “How can I best help?” I think that this second question is under-appreciated.

How can each of us best help? It is a difficult question. It is difficult to find an answer. We can help in countless ways. Morally speaking, perhaps every way is equal to every other way. But I’m not satisfied with that. There are ways to help which are powerful. And other ways which are trivial. Should we not strive to be more powerful when we work to do good in the world?

Of course, we should first do good, if an opportunity presents itself. Then, when availing ourselves of a chance to rest and contemplate, ask how we might help in a way which is more powerful, and more effective. This is the chance I have taken for myself, and would like to enable others to take. Or, even better, to spare them from having to take. Not everyone enjoys spending long hours thinking. Or even reading.

The third, and final, question is, how do we know which ways of helping are the most powerful and effective?

I have a proposal. If helping is defined as alleviating pain, then the best way to alleviate pain is to first identify where the pain is. Many people do this when trying to find a purpose in life, such as starting a company, or choosing a career, or adopting an ideology, or joining a religion. How can this choice help me to help others? But how many people actually consider the full range of possibilities?

There is pain everywhere. Pain is a constant in life. But not all pains are equal.

We prioritize the pains felt by those to whom we are connected. But if we all live in isolated islands of people with similar lives, chances are that the people we know have pain that is very similar to our pain. That is good, if we want to understand their pain. But if we are all similar, it might mean that we all have not only similar pain, but similar kinds of pain. And, if you are, for example, a white man in an upper-middle class neighbourhood, with white upper-middle class family, friends and neighbours, then the likely result is that you and everyone you know has white upper-middle class problems. Which, frankly, are simply not that severe or important, compared to the problems of people in other circumstances.

But how would you know that, if you didn’t have some way to connect with people in other circumstances?

The best way to help people—to help the world—is to find and understand the greatest suffering, and then devise a way to relieve it. For a lot of privileged people, it does not mean starting up another social media company, or making music, movies or video games. It does not mean giving people, already blessed with a plethora of options, yet more ways to entertain themselves.

Instead, it means finding different people, with different lives, different challenges, different struggles, and different pain, and helping them. Even if it isn’t clear how they might pay you for the help, if they do at all. If you are a person of privilege, maybe you can find some creative way to pay the bills, instead of having a conventional salary, or an equity stake in a startup.

Maybe you can do without luxuries that, frankly, are little more than status symbols, meant to solve your problem of social insecurity in your birthright peer group. Maybe you need to trust that the people you help will find a way to make sure that your needs are met. Maybe you will discover that the help you provide to others will also help you, especially if you are addressing important issues like lack of food, shelter, medicine, education, personal safety and security, bodily autonomy, or other things you otherwise take for granted.

Of course, this is easier written than achieved. We are born into our social circles. Breaking out of them, and breaking into others, is not easy. It does not come naturally. I can speak from personal experience.

Moreover, it is never obvious how to help people. Who wants to share their pain with strangers? Even if some do, it’s a big world, full of billions of people. We live in different countries, speak different languages, follow different laws, and eat different foods. We have different ideas of normal. We have different hopes and dreams. We experience our pain in different ways. We have different concepts of kindness, generosity, and sharing. You cannot help a person if you don’t understand where they’re coming from. You cannot help a person who does not trust you.

We need to learn about each other. We need to find ways to trust one another. Because by helping one another, we help each other, and everyone. And then, we are all collaborators, too.

When that happens, we can turn our full attention to the rest of the planet, and all the other species that live here. Hopefully, before it’s too late.

To that end, I’m working on an idea for how to assemble a world-wide database of human struggle. It would be a global index of challenges face by people world wide, challenges to self-care, and in caring for others. I don’t know how I’m going to do it, or if it’s possible, or if it will work out. It’s just an idea.

Many government programs, NGOs, charities, foundations, and other bodies are already devoted to helping people. I’m not looking to replace any of them. Perhaps I am looking to consolidate them, or at least their knowledge of the challenges they are working to address. Specifically, I would like to integrate the data they have about those problems: the specific threats and risks faced by people, other species, and ecosystems, throughout the world.

I think it would be beneficial to have a standard, universal database of all the challenges faced by all the living beings on Earth. It is controversial, of course. Not all pain and suffering can be directly compared. It would be wrong, in any case, to try to simply rank them all. But that wouldn’t be the point.

It is possible to rank threats in some manner. For example, acuteness, or severity, or concentration. One million people starving in one small country, due to an acute systemic failure, is a different kind of problem, with different logistical requirements, than a million people, spread across a continent, with food insecurity caused by a chronic systemic flaw.

Similarly, people at risk of losing their water supply is a different kind of challenge than another people at risk of losing their livelihoods. The pain might be felt just as intensely in both cases. But each challenge has a different time horizon. You can last a few days, at most, without water. You can last much longer without a job. Certainly, losing your house is a disaster. But if you’re still alive, there’s still an opportunity to get it back, or a similar one. Dying of thirst takes away that option.

It’s just an idea. It’s not something I’ll be able to do alone. Probably I will have to partner with an existing organization, once I have some kind of functioning prototype. It’s unlikely to be a money-making enterprise. Although I have thought about how to adapt the concept and technology to a smaller, more focussed context, such as service requirements for a single town, or the competing goals of a corporate division.

The basic idea is very simple: to compare needs with resources, and develop a strategy that ensures the most good gets done. It’s not unlike playing a game, but instead of a game with only one winner, it’s a game without losers, where everyone who wins can find ways to help other people win. Until that day when we’re all winners.

Progress

Understanding. Knowledge. Intelligence. Wisdom. Insight. Perspective. Discovery. Learning. Creation. Power. Influence. Control. Love. Peace. Harmony.

What is the best expression of humanity?

It doesn’t have to be one of the words mentioned above. Maybe there is no single word, aside from “humanity” itself. But there should be.

Humanity is a vague term. Technically, it’s an overloaded word: it has multiple meanings: a culture, a species, a civilization, and individual personhood, for starters. That makes it ambiguous—i.e. vague—without context. Since context is nearly impossible to predict, a more precise word would be better.

I’ll set that aside for now.

Can the world be changed? Can it be improved, by concerted or focussed effort? Can people make the world better? Can humanity—by whatever definition—improve its own situation? Or do our attempts at improvement fall short? Do they rearrange things, without ultimately changing them?

What would change look like? How would you measure it? Assuming that science, technology, material living standards, and other external features of reality miss the mark. What if you progress means moral improvement? Can you measure that? What if it means creative achievement? Or a general increase in knowledge? Or self-awareness? Can those be measured?

What about opportunity? Can the world have more opportunity? Is opportunity an objective phenomenon? Or is it a way of perceiving?

How about freedom? Can more people be free? Can any individual be more free? Free of what? There are material bounds on human beings, and there are psychological bounds. Which ones matter most? How does the freedom of one person impact the freedom of other people?

Is happiness measurable? Can more people be happy? Can everyone be happier more often? Do we need freedom to be happy? What about opportunity? Knowledge? Wisdom? Power?

The idea of progress is not easy to pin down.

Keeping Score

If life is a tournament, how do we know who is winning? How do we rank one another?

There are lots of possible metrics: net worth, fan base, friends in high places, employee head count, number of ICBMs controlled, Youtube views… Some of these are easier to measure than others, but they all have high degrees of error.

All of the metrics you might suggest are likely to have one thing in common: they are actually proxy measurements for power.

Power is your ability to influence other people. Everyone has some power. Unless they are in a coma, or otherwise completely at the mercy of others. But if you can speak or move any part of your body, you can communicate. And if you can communicate, you have power.

The power game is not for everyone. While we all want power sometimes, most of the time, we would rather someone else have the power, and take care of us because they love us. I think, if everyone had someone that they believed loved them, without question, then no one would feel a desire for power. No one would have to play the power game. Power is a substitute for the feeling of being loved. Not adored, or desired, or appreciated: just loved. Those other things are utilitarian qualities. They are not measures of love. They are measures of power.

Not everyone is loved. And even if they are, love often comes second place to power, for the people in their lives.

People who are afraid cannot love. They can only seek power. It may be said that love can conquer fear. But that would require love in the first place. How many people have love of that sort? Too few. No, for most people, fear conquers everything. Power, while it cannot overcome fear, can hold it back, if only temporarily. Desire can be stronger than fear, until desire is satisfied, and a new object of desire must be identified. Control can give the illusion of safety, for a while, which can calm fears. But they always return, when the fearful once again see that their power is limited.

There is always something that we cannot control. Something can always get to us, to harm us, to humiliate us, to embarrass us, to shame us, to kill us.

Who is the least afraid? That is how we rank each other. We see the wealthy, and think they are not afraid. We see the beautiful, the famous, the adored, and think that they are not afraid. We see the lords and ladies, the captains of industry, the presidents, prime ministers, and  great leaders, and think that they are not afraid. Or less afraid than us. Less afraid of being mocked, taunted, disrespected, rejected. But is it true?

You can be terrible, or wonderful, but that does not make you loveable. In fact, being loveable does not ensure you will be loved. Nothing can. You are either loved, or not. If you are not loved, there is nothing you can do about it. Except relinquish yourself. Confront your isolation. Accept it. Forget you exist. Let your fear wash over you, and through you. Let is strip away whatever it touches.

Then, see what remains.

Life Games

Is life a game? How would you know?

Let’s say it is. What are the rules? How do you win? Does the game end?

The challenge is more difficult than it first sounds, and it sounds difficult already.

What do I mean by “life”? There are at least two definitions worth considering.

The first definition of life is biology. On one level, this game is played by organisms, including people. On another, it is played by genes.

The second definition is society. People play this game with one another. Let’s use this definition. But in what way is it a game?

What is a game?

At its simplest, a game is an activity, performed by players, that defines a win condition. When the game is won, it is over. What is the win condition of life?

Perhaps life is less like a single game than a repeating tournament. A tournament is a collection of games. You can win games, and you can win the tournament. But there will always be another tournament.

Repeating tournaments are like a game, but they follow different mechanics. They never have to end. So no one ever definitively wins. But there are ways of keeping score, and deciding who the most successful players are.

This sounds more like how we often think about life in human society. People rise in the ranks, and later fall. We remember people who had stellar careers, with many exceptional wins. Some people stay at the top for a long time, long after they stop playing. Are rankings a kind of game? Perhaps they should have a different name.

If life is a game of rankings, then which ranking is the most important? Here is where it gets tricky, because this is the argument that never ends. At different places and times in history, in different societies, different rankings are favoured or neglected. One of the great activities in life, aside from all the other things we do to keep ourselves occupied, seems to be debating which ranking is the best ranking. In fact, this creates a different kind of leaderboard: the ranking of rankings.

This is getting complicated. But this was what motivated me to write. What are the different rankings, and how are they ranked? Is there a way to rank the rankings? Is there a clear hierarchy of ways to rank the rankings?

It appears that there is no objective way to rank the rankings. If there were, there would no longer be any arguments about it.

Instead, there are many subjective ways to rank the rankings. Whichever rankings are most popular, in a given society, determines the fates of the individuals in that society. Exactly what makes a ranking popular seems to be up to the forces of history, and the flows of social power, which are themselves determined by the rankings.

What we end up with is a kind of feedback system made of two different phenomena: popularity of people, and the opinions of popular people. People gain and lose popularity generally much faster than the ranking systems we use to evaluate those people. But every popular person gains a moment in which they can influence the priority of a given ranking system.

At other times, the people at large seem to take matters into their own hands. The current ranking system abruptly falls out of favour, and another takes its place. But usually, it is a person who they favour: someone who acts as standard-bearer for the new system. That someone might have devise the new ranking system, or they may have recovered one from obscurity.

Do people get bored of life games? Do they regularly seek out new ranking systems, as a means to renew their interest in the spectacle? How much of history comes down to the side effects of society’s desire to mix things up? Even while many people are working to improve their own standing in the current system, deeper dynamics are at work, making their efforts ultimately moot.

How much of history is the battle to climb the same ladder, versus the battle to change which ladder is the one that matters? Is there one ultimate ladder?

I keep using the word “popular”. I have applied it to people, and to ranking systems.

Popularity is itself a ranking system. In fact, it is a sort of distillation of many ranking systems.

Popularity is a kind of weighted average of the importance of something in the minds of all people, in relation to their own power. Power itself is basically popularity, in the sense that one person’s power is nothing more than the sum of the amount of obedience they inspire in others. Power is the degree to which people do what you ask them to. Whether a request is framed as an order, a favour, a suggestion, or merely through behaviour that attracts imitation, it is all a kind of following. Even the weakest person in society has some influence. But at any given time, certain people have vastly more.

What makes people influential? Being high in the rankings. What puts people high in the rankings? The meta-ranking of the rankings. Who chooses which rankings are most important? Influence people. It goes in circles.

Are there any sure means of gaining in the rankings? Well, I can think of one for sure, but it is a kind of cheat: kill your opponents. For all their remaining popularity, a dead person has no direct influence on future events. (Yes, powerful followers might continue in their stead. But if you were directly competing with their better, then they are likely to be less powerful than you.) As for the status of cheating, like many rules, enforcement is conditional. If your cheating has the desired results, you will not be punished. If it fails, you will lose popularity, and descend in the rankings proportionally. Often, it is not the act which is wrong, but the interpretation. And as always, your opponents must prove you are the perpetrator, and that your intention was foul.

I’ll admit that there is a lot of flexibility in how people decide who has influence in determining which ranking system takes priority. But the idea that popularity—and the preferred ranking system—is arbitrary, or whimsical, is unsatisfactory. Human nature, at some level—biologically, at least—is fixed. If it were to change, would it still be human? If it does change, it changes slowly. Orders of magnitude more slowly than culture, let alone fashion.

Is there a built-in ranking system? In fact, how many ranking systems are built in? And what determines which one takes priority?

That would tell you a lot about the real nature of life games.

Preparedness

Most people don’t think about what would happen if their supply lines were cut, even for a short time. We take our networks for granted. We are very complacent.

Stories are a good vehicle to demonstrate what happens to different people, in different situations, with different levels of self-reliance and complacency, in different kinds of emergencies. I personally love disaster movies, and contemplating what it means to be prepared for a disaster, and how to come through one with the least amount of misery.

The recent worldwide COVID-19 pandemic caught nearly everyone off guard. Even people, like me, who have been reading, and conceding the truth of, warnings about a pandemic, which have been floating around for decades. The one we got is not great, but it could have been much worse. In fact, there will probably be another one, much sooner, that is much worse.

Preparedness is a state of mind. It’s not easy to maintain. Realistically, being prepared should only use up a small amount of a person’s time. A couple of hours a month, or less, to have food, water, energy, and various kinds of equipment, ready and waiting.

A smart city, or any community, would prepare together. They would have a common cache of emergency supplies, which they would all pay a small amount to maintain. Every few months, they would have a small party and eat some of the preserved food, to prevent waste, and then buy more, constantly cycling through the food to keep the stock viable.

However, because emergencies happen so rarely, most people would rather enjoy the benefits of their wealth immediately. Only people who already save money are in a position to transition some of that savings into usable form. Most people see stores full of food and supplies, and think that those represent a sufficient cache of available emergency supplies. But those stores are vastly insufficient. Especially because so many people are mistrustful, and the people running various retail stores have no social duty to prevent people hoarding, so the supplies end up misallocated, even if there is an emergency.

The story of the ant and the grasshopper is evergreen.

The trouble is, a society is made up of diverse people, with diverse attitudes to preparedness. Too many complacent people secretly believe that they can depend on other people to help them in an emergency, even though they have no intention of having any means to help themselves, let alone anyone else.

What can we do about that?

I’m not talking about poor people. There are rich people who are the same. They are just as likely to believe that they can go to stores when the time comes, as they are so used to being able to buy anything they want, the moment they feel they need it.

There are also some emergencies that are predictable, and avoidable, and for which no amount of preparedness through stockpiling or hoarding can help. If your city gets washed away by a natural disaster, chances are that your supplies are either gone or inaccessible, or insufficient to your needs. Moreover, some disasters are so large that they take years to recover from, if at all. Climate disasters are going to be so terrible that most people are going to be affected, and there won’t be any return to normal, even for people who are excessively prepared. Supply lines won’t be interrupted for a short, or even long while, but forever, in some places.

Avoiding climate disasters of that magnitude requires a much more radical change of behaviour. One that is, as far as I can tell, simply beyond most people’s ability. Not materially, but culturally.

Our culture is complacent to the core. It is a religious belief that the free market and democracy and “technology” (which is to say, machines and gadgets, mostly), or “science” (meaning scientists), can solve anything, when they put their minds to it. It will take some very persuasive storytelling to get people to question, let alone replace, those assumptions. The achievements of science and technology have created a sense of comfort, of over-confidence, which could prove disastrous in the long run.

We need more stories about believable disasters, to shake people from their comfort.

People are, by and large, afraid of the wrong things. They are only afraid of things that they can understand and explain to themselves. Mostly, they do this with stories. Without illustrative stories, dangers simply do not exist.

Apocalypse Anxiety

“Apocalypse” is a strong word. Maybe too dramatic for what I am concerned about: a pause or reversal in human progress across all measures, along with catastrophic damage to Earth’s biosphere following dramatic change to the air and water.

It’s not that it’s possible, or potential, or in the future. It’s here, now. Plants and animals are going extinct every day. Forests are disappearing. Coral reefs are dead or dying.

This doesn’t mean that human beings will go extinct. Some of us might even thrive. But the world is changing, and we are losing the majority of our natural biodiversity endowment. Maybe this doesn’t matter for human beings. Maybe it’s inevitable. But it’s still disturbing. And it’s very risky.

Humans, by and large, are not emotionally attuned to, if they are even conscious of, the second-order consequences of their actions, let alone third- and fourth-order, etc. Why that is true is a result of our evolution. The details are worth understanding, but don’t necessarily determine the facts they give rise to.

A tiny percentage of people are aware of the indirect results of human activity, both individual and collective. The power of these few people is too small, at present, to mitigate the impact of that activity. To some degree, they can try to inform and educate others. But there is a much more powerful group with the exact opposite aim, with less, if any, respect for reality or truth, and a willingness to use any means necessary to supress any challenge to the reigning orthodoxy and ideology.

In short, a few people, myself included, see a dire future, and can do nothing about it.

This is a parallel situation to that faced by someone with a fatal cancer diagnosis. Death is coming. How do I respond?

Death, in this case, is somewhat metaphorical, and abstract. The many species of life forms that are going extinct are barely recognized by humans. It is not a loss if you don’t know you ever had it. So, that gives us a possible point of entry: how can we make people aware of what they have, so that they will feel its loss, and seek to avert it? Without triggering the in-group out-group bias in a destructive manner?

For example, you wouldn’t want a competition between countries to save their wildlife, if it meant encouraging one country to annihilate the wild endowment of its neighbours, just so it could “win”. We want to see the entire world as being the endowment and responsibility of every person on Earth. Which may be impossible. Perhaps, instead, it could be Earth versus some imaginary alien planet, which is threatening to do better than us?

Or, perhaps we could invent a global apolacalyptic underground cult, whose sole purpose is to destroy Earth’s ecosystem as a means of preventing humanity from reaching some higher level of power and progress, or from escaping the prison of Earth. They are currently winning. Do we want them to win? No!

Here’s the situation. Nature has no conscience. Nature is not a person. Nature, unconsciously, created conscious creatures. It then gave them the ability to make and use tools, followed by self-awareness, social awareness, and language. Then they discovered fossil fuels: the stored energy of the sun, slowly converted from the remains of ancient sea life, over hundreds of millions of years, into various stable chemical forms, easily transported and converted into portable energy sources.

In a certain way, humanity is just a vehicle for the release of all that stored energy. If it hadn’t been for us, some other process would probably have released it. Probably another life form. Possibly a sentient one, but just as possibly a single-celled or very small one, that could have burrowed into the depths of the earth and generated the same or similar greenhouse gases while eating the fossil fuels blindly and stupidly, and causing similar havoc to what we see today.

That, of course, is a story. Some might see it as a dangerous story, because it would allow humans to avoid any blame or responsibility for the damage we are causing. That would be a disingenuous interpretation, however.

An alternate story is one in which humans—or some other intelligent species—evolve sufficient wisdom to properly handle the responsibility of this enormous energy windfall. We use it carefully, mitigate its effects, limit the waste output, possibly by limiting the usage rate. Or maybe even export the stuff to other planets, where it would be useful, and not harmful. It wouldn’t have to be transported physically. It could, for example, be used to power lasers to charge space batteries that would travel to other planets, and then transfer their energy to ground stations. Or simply power space-based civilizations.

What could possibly give rise to such an enlightened species? Perhaps if humans had experienced some kind of smaller-scale catastrophe, earlier in their development, that had killed off the merely sociable, short-sighted humans, leaving more long-sighted ones to inherit the earth.

There may be limits to the kinds of creatures to which biological evolution can give rise. Some amount of individual selfishness, coupled with delusions about the nature of reality, seems unavoidable. The balance of short- versus long-term thinking and planning (and related things like the future discounting rate), at least in a hostile world full of voracious carnivorous predators, requires one’s offspring to survive to adulthood, while requiring very little memory of the past, beyond the tools of survival and some stories to provide context and justification. We only needed to see around twenty to thirty years into the future, and only in the local environment. And we don’t need to remember the details of the past, only convenient, fictionalized summaries.

We would have to evolve another brain feature to allow us to progress beyond this. Perhaps we are already in the process of doing so. But that process is too slow, compared to the rate at which we are now exploiting the environment.

The only hope, apparently, is to change culture. But it seems unlikely that we would adopt a culture that contradicted our natural impulses. Maybe in various religions, in the face of the fear of god and punishment in the afterlife. But we had those, and frankly they didn’t stop us from destroying the environment. Just the opposite. They reinforced the sense of human superiority and domination.

The forces of the existing culture, as mentioned, also work much more vigorously to protect it, and have all the power they need to do so, and to fight against any change in the narrative.

What we don’t have is a plausible argument or scenario for how the majority of people become motivated to adopt a new point of view, a new narrative, and a new lifestyle which does not drive us towards ecological catastrophe, and eventual human regression and possible extinction. Even if that extinction is millennia away, the loss of ecosystem services necessary to fulfill the needs of human beings would prevent any real progress. Even if we build millions of solar- and wind-powered greenhouses and farms, the tolerance for error will be small to nil. So any accident would quickly lead to falling dominoes and chaos.

Possibly, a different and less awful equilibrium is possible, but it will still be much worse than today. People in the future won’t feel the difference, of course. They will accept it as normal. They may be able to enjoy VR experiences of the past, full of convincing recreations of elephants and tigers and whales, and entire virtual ecosystems on a lush virtual alternate Earth. Then again, they may just enjoy them as a chance to hunt big game.

Perhaps these are the unavoidable growing pains of becoming an interplanetary species. Perhaps we have to consume the egg in order to grow and mature into something larger. Maybe at some point, we will have the power to create new eggs. Or, at least, perfect replicas of our old egg. Or, alternately, we mature out of our nostalgia for specific life forms and ecosystems. We learn, perhaps, to love the cold voids and the infinite empty reaches of interstellar space.

Perhaps we learn to take the billion-year view of things, and give up our individuality. Perhaps we give up our humanity, and turn into something else. Or perhaps our machines carry on without us and our biological baggage.

Can We Understand Society?

An interesting fact about the origins of capitalism is the honest—almost naive—way that its apologists admitted the basic problem of society. Human beings are selfish. There is no know way to alter this basic fact. Capitalism, as an ideology, does not claim to be a way to change people. It assumes that people are what they are. Any useful economic system has to be designed for real people. Where it fails, however, is in its over-confidence in a single solution: the free market. Like magic, the market takes care of itself. It channels otherwise destructive energy to society’s benefit, encouraging people to do useful work for which others will pay.

Perhaps they were right, and still are. If you allow the assumption of a free market. But we don’t have a free market. We’ve never had a free market.

I’m not referring to government regulation. I’m referring to dynamics which exist apart from the normal market, and apart from the operations of the government. Or, at least, to dynamics which, while ostensibly under government oversight, transcend the government’s ability to observe or understand, and therefor manage. Things like asymmetric information flow; extra-judicial use of force, threats, and violence; and white collar crime of all sorts. In other words, corruption.

Human society, today, seems quite corrupt, in general. While any given corrupt act is not, by most standards, particularly egregious, the sum total of all such acts is significantly damaging. A lot of corruption is not even strictly illegal, although it certainly violates the spirit of the law, if you take the time to examine it carefully. The total corruption in the economy and government undermines the ability of society to manage itself in a way which serves the majority of people. Which is what a minority of people want.

A minority of people have always wanted power and control beyond their natural share.

While it’s fine for capitalism to claim that the free market will direct the motivations of the naturally selfish to ultimately benefit society, the assumption of a well-functioning free market is no longer something we can take for granted. Perhaps it was always a fiction, or perhaps the minds behind the theory of capitalism were simply unable to plumb the depths of human desire, or recognize the creativity of human greed.

The distribution of ill intent amongst the population is probably normal (Gaussian, as opposed to Pareto or power law). Most people are selfish, but basically moral. They will look out for their own interests without deliberately harming the interests of others. There is a dwindling minority of people who will tolerate, and even engage in, acts which harm others for their benefit. At the opposite end of the curve, there is a similar dwindling minority who will sacrifice themselves for the benefit of others. Perhaps a large minority will sacrifice their personal needs for the needs of a society with which they deeply identify, as a tribe that they consider as a spiritual extended family. Inversely, the opposite large minority of self-centred people consider society-at-large to be spiritually alien, and fair targets, if not outright enemies deserving of destruction.

These statements about the distribution of good will and ill will amongst the population are, sadly, not scientifically derived. They are based on an intuitive inference from my experiences, and third-hand reporting. They are anecdotal, non-randomly sampled, from too few data points. But acquiring the proper data scientifically requires my being some kind of data scientist. Unfortunately, even if I had—or were to acquire—the necessary credentials to find work as a data scientist, the effort to measure corruption in the economy, and the underlying distribution of ill will in the general population which feeds it, do not seem, to me, like the kinds of research likely to attract funding.

Nevertheless, I have my theories, unscientific though they may be. Even lacking data, I think it that there is a strong argument to study and assess corruption, especially new kinds of corruption that have arisen in the information age. Moreover, there is a strong rhetorical argument to constantly work to prevent corruption, and the tactics used to enable it.

The more corrupt a society becomes, the less likely it is to direct resources to ending corruption. The opposite is more likely to be true: that corruption encourages further corruption, including the application of resources to discovering and exploiting new opportunities for profitable corrupt activities. Effort is directed towards finding loopholes in the legal system and government policy; to learning which criminal activities are under-prosecuted, which areas of the economy which are less regulated, and which regulatory agencies are understaffed, or otherwise lack resources necessary to fulfill their own mandate; which governments and officials are most corrupt, or most amenable to manipulation; and, finally, which populations are easiest to manipulate and deceive with distractions and disinformation campaigns.

I find this all very disturbing and disheartening. I don’t want to live in a corrupt world. I don’t want to live in a world where good people are too busy trying to survive that they have no resources left to contribute to protecting and strengthening essential social institutions. Even while they feel, at some level, a tide of ill intent steadily eroding the foundations of their societies. Even if they may end up buried under the weight of both the flood waters and the rubble of the institutions they used to believe in. They simply lack the ability to resist it, or so they believe.

Is it too late? Or is there, perhaps, a way to attract the attention of those few in power who are not yet too corrupt—or obsessive, or delusional—and may be willing to devote some of their surplus resources to fixing the flaws in the system, in order to reverse the rising tide?

My fear is that even the wealthiest have stopped believing that there is anything that can be done. There is a deep sense of fatalism that seems to pervade many. Although there are also many who seem oblivious and unconcerned. Every Pollyanna seems to think every worrier is a Chicken Little. At the end of the day, we lack a persuasive argument, and hard numbers that would allow us to fully understand the reality of the situation, and communicate it successfully. Not to mention a strategy for combatting the threat, let alone one which doesn’t require everyone to relinquish some ideological ground.

Who will put up the cash to fund the work of collecting, analyzing, and publicizing the necessary data? Who will craft a coherent story that will attract the attention of the public, to the point that they will wake up, pay attention, and vote accordingly? Who amongst the elites have sufficient trustworthiness or respect from the public to be able to shake them out of their complacency and fatalism? To change their minds? How much of the public can afford to spend the time to learn enough to understand even the most basic issues regarding corruption in today’s world? How many have the strength to admit that they have been duped and manipulated for years, or that the things they take for granted and consider their rightful and just rewards, for making it through the day, are in reality the very instruments of their own enslavement and suffering?

Perhaps this is the wrong approach, then. So what is the alternative? I think it requires going back to fundamentals. And maybe, with enough creativity, even our sorry excuse for a free market could help.

What do people want? And how can you give it to them for less?

People have predictable needs. People are human animals. They all need the same things. Culturally, they may need those things to come in various forms, which they find familiar and comfortable. Ultimately, it is this sense of comfort that people want. It’s not a desire for complacency. It is a desire for a sense of reliable normalcy.

Unfortunately, what people are getting today is a constant barrage of warnings that everything they care about is on the verge of being taken away from them. For complicated reasons, we have evolved a society, in response to somewhat arbitrary—highly unconstrained—market forces, in which there is more profit to be made in satisfying artificial needs. More precisely, in satisfying desires which are artificially stimulated by a kind of inadvertent deception. Such as the desire to feel righteous, which relies on first feeling outraged. Very few people in power care about what the public specifically thinks or believes. What they do care about is the fact that an uneasy, anxious public are easier to manipulate, and are more likely to spend money irrationally, to go into debt unnecessarily, and to seek false security against imaginary threats.

Granted, not all of the hysteria that pervades the public consciousness comes from within the societies it plagues. There is strong evidence that we have been victims of nearly invisible psychological warfare, conducted in such a way that even our leaders are not fully aware of it, or the extent of the damage it has caused. Does this sound like conspiracy theory? Is it a conspiracy to suggest that foreign governments are in state of near-constant animosity with one another, whether at mild or high intensity? The global environment may be less openly combative, but the general tone is still mostly one of competition and conflict. Leaders of today still compete with one another for status, playing their own delusional games, using their own citizens as fodder. If not for cannons, then for wage slaves or votes.

In any case, it seems clear that there is a minority of powerful people in our society who simply don’t care where the hysteria comes from. It affords them the opportunity to abuse the public and make money. So why should they complain, or do anything else to stop it? Perhaps, if we are generous, their motivations are no less distorted and confused by disinformation. I suspect it is different in form, and even in origins, but it would take research and analysis to better understand. The powerful have always treated one another as opponents, if not outright enemies. The power game is one with strange, complicated, and ever-changing rules. Anyone can find themselves in a position of weakness and vulnerability, and end up a victim. Paranoia is inevitable. That is, if you believe what you see on TV. It’s just as likely that most people in power prefer a stable environment. But there are always those with only some power, who, desiring more, will use whatever means they can to get what they want.

In the end, we are left with many important questions that urgently require factual and rigorous answers. Unfortunately, they are rather strange questions, not about material reality, but about perceptual and conceptual reality. These are questions which require a different set of tools, and even a different kind of science. They are questions about knowledge. Not only how to acquire it, or how to verify it. But how to correct the knowledge we already have, and ostensibly, ironically, trust to be correct. Moreover, we must ask questions not just about knowledge itself, but about the people who have that knowledge, especially those who trust in false knowledge, and live their lives according to their incorrect beliefs. We require new disciplines forged out of old ones, like psychology and sociology and political science, merged with new tools from mathematics, statistics, systems theory and computer science.

We need to understand people. We need to understand their beliefs and motivations. Not merely as individuals, but as entire societies and civilizations. People see danger, but is it real? Or are they terrorized by imaginary nightmares, invented to divert their attention from actual—if less dramatic—threats that imperceptibly sap their energy, waste their time, and steal their money?

What do people see when they look at the world? How do they interpret what they see? How does that motivate them? What choices do they make? Can we help them to see more accurately, understand more fully, and defend against dishonesty and deceit? Or must we accept a world where large populations are essentially, if not effectively, controlled by propaganda and fantasy, who behave in irrational and self-destructive ways, and who could, without warning, tear down the world we all rely on in the pursuit of demons that aren’t there?

It’s happened in the past. It can happen again.

Im|media|te

I looked at Twitter this morning. I follow very few people. Each time I open Twitter, I stop following someone else. Usually, because they shared something irrelevant, as though it were important.

“What do you mean?” you might ask? It’s not like they asked me to read their tweet. But didn’t they? Implicitly?

Urgency. Or more specifically, immediacy. I had this experience. I had this idea. It’s on my mind now, so I’ll share it. No matter that it distracts people, myself and others, from important things.

Social media trains people to give credence to their every fleeting thought and feeling. Which is a terrible habit, in a complex and ever-changing world.

We don’t need more irrelevancy. Nevertheless, irrelevancy is what our society concerns itself with, more and more.

In contrast, I prefer books. Specifically, books about important things. Books are the way that insightful people share valuable knowledge. Certainly, not all books are important. But some are. Whereas the Internet—particularly social media, but other media too—is almost exclusively irrelevant.

I’ve been avoiding irrelevant noise for as long as I can remember. On the other hand, I’ve also been consumed with irrelevant noise for as long as I can remember. The difference is, the noise I’ve consumed was honest drivel. And some of it even had some important insights hidden inside. Unlike the mass media, a serving of drivel wrapped in hysteria.

Immediacy is the death of consideration, both of ideas and people. It is the indulgence of fast thinking, knee-jerk responses, and emotional instantaneity. It is the medium of the impulsive, unrestrained, short-sighted, and over-anxious. It is the fixation of those who cannot cope with the complexity of life, and so simply give up, and let their emotions control their lives.

Why can’t they cope? What drives people to this maniacal state? Are they lacking something crucial to their health and security, which fills them with terror that can only be assuaged with manic action, obsessive fixation, and shrill accusations? Or does this atmosphere of anxiety have a life of its own? Is it a kind of cultural cancer?

What are we feeling threatened by? And can we do anything useful about it? Or is this absorption in the irrelevant and immediate the only option?

Futures

I’ve been fascinated by the future ever since I was a little kid. Although, come to think of it, in the 70s, most of the places I got my ideas about the future were from TV and movies, and most of them were about the present. In fact, Star Wars claims to take place in the past! But shows like The Six Million Dollar Man and movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind brought visions of the future into the present, as if to say the future was already here, but we just didn’t know it.

When I was a teenager, in the 80s, I was obsessed with science fiction novels. I read fantasy, too, but science fiction was smarter, and carried the implied promise of events that might really happen. Since then, I’ve come to realize how much of science fiction is just fantasy in disguise. The future is an alternate reality version of the present, just like fantasy books are. Sure, it’s a truism that science fiction is really not about the future, or other planets: it is about here and now. But to see that, you have to read between the lines.

The same is true of more serious attempts to predict the future. Sure, if the point is actual prediction, as opposed to pure entertainment, maybe there’s more integrity. But I think a significant percentage of futurism is just a different kind of science fiction. It might eschew well-drawn characters and complicated plot constructions, but it’s still fiction. It’s still imaginary.

It’s kind of amazing how much of the human experience lives in the imagination. Memory. Alternate history. What could have been. Alternate presents. What should have been. The future. What will be. Other places where we are not. It’s all speculation, construction and artificial.

The more I think about the future, especially, the more I wonder if it’s good for me. For us, as a society, to obsess about what might happen tomorrow, next year, in a hundred years.

Something I noticed a long time ago was that you could classify people based on how far into the future they let their imagination go. But that’s just scratching the surface. The future is today, as you know, with some things added and some things taken away. Which things will be added or taken away, and in what order, makes all the difference. To some degree, it’s about time scales, but not absolute ones. The most significant changes, from a human perspective, are geographical: the social and physical environment. Who will you meet? Who will you lose? Where will you go? And of course, when will you die?

While people have the most impact, we have become so obsessed with machines (“technology”) that our thinkers are not thinking about those fundamental human relationships. They are mostly thinking about the economy—jobs, money, gadgets, vehicles—and the environment.

Some people are enthusiastic. Some are discouraged, or even terrified. The world could chage dramatically. It could be the end of us all. It could be heaven on Earth.

It seems like, whatever happens, it will be faster and louder and more chaotic. But in many ways, it will just be more of the same.

Yes, it will probably be different, superficially. Navigating the future may be a challenge. But at the heart of it, unless we are all killed off by robots, it will still be human. Human loves, fears, hopes, desires, and relationships.

Technology is an amplifier. With a rock, you can kill one person. With a nuclear ICBM, you can kill ten million. But it’s not the rock or the ICBM that is the real problem. It’s the murderous hatred in the heart of the person who uses that weapon.

If we create artificial intelligence, whether that AI is friendly or hostile is mostly a question of the intention of its programmer. Although, it is worth noting, a truly autonomous AI will make its own choices and define its own goals. But it’s fundamental nature will be whatever its creator decides. (There is, I should add, a risk that its nature is not at all understood by its creator, and that whatever personality emerges from its design is completely accidental and unpredicatable. But we don’t even know if such a machine is even possible. So we can’t even measure the risk.)

The attempt to create artificial intelligence, or flying cars, or holodecks, or even a Luddite utopia, are not driven by knowledge of the future. They are driven by human emotions and human imagination. For every person who sees beauty in an choice—whether to invent new technology, or to elect a certain person to political office—someone else sees horror. One person’s dream is another’s nightmare. But it all starts out as a dream.

What’s fascinating, and tragic, is not the dream, but the person having the dream. Why does one person dream of robots, space ships and living on other planets? Why does another person dream of money, sex and power? And a third dream of magical schools and fantastical beasts?

The future is what we long for and what we dread. It all comes out from inside our heads.

People will invent things. Disasters will happen. But if you want to understand the future, you need to understand the people who will make it happen. Including yourself. And isn’t that the hardest thing?